A balanced diet may be linked to better brain health, study suggests

A healthy, balanced diet is linked to better brain health, and better mental wellbeing, new research suggests.

The study sheds light on how food preferences not only influence physical health, but also significantly impact upon brain health.

A balanced diet – which included a balanced amount of vegetables, fruits, cereals, nuts, seeds, pulses, moderate dairy, eggs and fish – was associated with better mental health.

According to the findings it was also linked to superior cognitive functions and even higher amounts of grey matter in the brain – linked to intelligence – compared with people on a less varied diet.

Lead author Professor Jianfeng Feng, of the University of Warwick, emphasised the importance of establishing healthy food preferences early in life.

He said: “Developing a healthy balanced diet from an early age is crucial for healthy growth.

“To foster the development of a healthy balanced diet, both families and schools should offer a diverse range of nutritious meals and cultivate an environment that supports their physical and mental health.”

In the study the dietary choices of 181,990 participants from the UK Biobank were analysed against and a range of physical evaluations, including cognitive function, blood tests, brain imaging, and genetics.

The food preferences of each person were collected via an online questionnaire, which the team categorised into 10 groups (such as alcohol, fruits and meats).

People were split into four groups, those who ate starch-free or reduced-starch diets (subtype 1), vegetarian (subtype 2), high protein and low fibre (subtype 3), and balanced (subtype 4).

A type of artificial intelligence called machine learning helped the researchers analyse the large dataset.

According to the findings, people with a balanced diet demonstrated better mental health and superior cognitive functions relative to other three subtypes.

The study, published in Nature Mental Health, also suggests the need for gradual dietary modifications, particularly for those used to tasty but nutritionally deficient foods.

By slowly reducing sugar and fat intake over time, people may find themselves naturally gravitating towards healthier food choices, researchers suggest.

The experts also indicate that genetic factors may also contribute to the association between diet and brain health.

Addressing the broader implications of the research, Prof Feng emphasised the role of public policy in promoting accessible and affordable healthy eating options.

He said: “Since dietary choices can be influenced by socioeconomic status, it’s crucial to ensure that this does not hinder individuals from adopting a healthy balanced dietary profile.

“Implementing affordable nutritious food policies is essential for governments to empower the general public to make informed and healthier dietary choices, thereby promoting overall public health.”

Co-author Wei Cheng, of Fudan University, added: “Our findings underscore the associations between dietary patterns and brain health, urging for concerted efforts in promoting nutritional awareness and fostering healthier eating habits across diverse populations.”